In Parashat Noach, the Torah builds on the founding myths of Parashat B’reishit by showing us a fascinating cycle of destruction and rebuilding, speaking both to the immense positive power of human planning and execution, and to the inherent negative possibilities that come with it. Parashat Noach begins at a moment when the earth had become filled with lawlessness, violence, and enmity (Genesis 6:11). Noah, the lone righteous person in a sea of viciousness, is divinely selected to save the world. When he builds Noah’s ark, it becomes the prime symbol of safety and salvation for humanity as the Flood clears the way for a better new world.
Contrast this with our parashah’s other building project, the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). While the tower was also clearly a human-made structure, God’s response is entirely different this time. God disapproves of the tower, and the penalty imposed is the scattering of humanity and the confounding of its communications through an unceasing proliferation of languages. This penalty is harsh and long lasting, and provides an etiological myth grounding the chafing enmity that exists between different ethnic and social groups whose miscommunication causes strife even until this day; draconian, yes, but certainly not as awful as the Flood.
Why is it that the first building project meets with adulation and the ultimate saving of collective humanity, while the second meets with dispersion and enforced diversity of language to separate human beings from one another? Commentators in every era have pointed to the fact that Noah built according to God’s plan, while the people of Babel worked entirely to exalt themselves and seize the power of God for their own human hands. Noah, then, represents someone who worked on God’s behalf, while those of the Tower of Babel actually worked to disregard or thwart God.
What was it that Noah did that made his actions so proper? First, he followed the command of God, and worked carefully to ensure that his creation was constructed according to the exacting specifications given him. Apart from the Tabernacle’s construction (in Exodus 25-28 and 35-39), there are few other narratives in the Torah that compare in detail to the building of Noah’s ark. Noah also showed courage—his project was not a group effort and he faced, no doubt, some skepticism from his neighbors (try building an ark in your backyard one day, and you’ll see). Further, the ones saved by his project where those in his immediate family, and this was a divine choice based on his (and presumably, his family’s) righteousness. Finally, his task was to save humanity and its animal companions from the constant challenge of flooding lowlands.
Contrast this with the parashah’s other builders. Josephus, the first century C.E. traitor, general, and historian, offered perhaps the most interesting reading in his Antiquities of the Jews 1:4. Attributing responsibility for the Tower to Nimrod, the “first among the earth’s heroes” (Genesis 10:8-9), Josephus explains the story thus:
He [=Nimrod] also gradually changed the government into tyranny, seeing no other way of turning men from the fear of God, but to bring them into a constant dependence on his power. He also said he would be revenged on God, if he should have a mind to drown the world again; for that he would build a tower too high for the waters to be able to reach! and that he would avenge himself on God for killing their forefathers! Now the multitude were very ready to follow the determination of Nimrod, and to esteem it a piece of cowardice to submit to God; and they built a tower, neither sparing any pains, nor being in any degree negligent about the work; and by reason of the multitude of hands employed in it, it grew very high, sooner than anyone could expect; but the thickness of it was so great, and it was so strongly built, that thereby its great height seemed, upon the view, to be less than it really was. It was built of burnt brick, cemented together with mortar, made of bitumen, that it might not be liable to admit water. When God saw that they acted so madly, God did not resolve to destroy them utterly, since they were not grown wiser by the destruction of the former sinners; but he caused a tumult among them, by producing in them various languages, and causing that, through the multitude of those languages, they should not be able to understand one another. The place wherein they built the tower is now called Babylon; because of the confusion of that language which they readily understood before; for the Hebrews mean by the word Babel, Confusion.
Nimrod and his merry band of builders violated any number of God’s precepts. First, they were tyrants, creating a government that degraded the power of God in its peoples’ eyes to bolster their all-powerful and abusive state. Such focus on status, hierarchy, and control leads only to no good. By engaging in such self-aggrandizing activity, rather than promoting the saving of humanity, the Tower builders set up its downfall.
Second (and Josephus’s most creative interpretation), this Tower was built to be high enough to make this particular group immune to future punishment by flood from God—a perfectly logical yet extremely chutzpadik response to the experience of Noah and his generation. Those who would stand isolated on a strong, lofty, waterproof Tower could evade the treacherous floodwaters and escape while the rest of the populace would perish around them. In this sort of warped “natural selection,” the evolution of evil in the next generation is almost assured. If it is only the powerful who survive, only those who oppress others, than the sorting for righteousness present in Noah’s story is abandoned, and the next generation will, no doubt, be more evil and power-hungry than the prior.
Finally, we note God’s compassion in Josephus’s reading. God realized that this group simply did not learn anything from the recent events of the Flood. They were more ignorant than they were wicked! And so, God chose to scatter them and confound their language, rather than eliminate them.
In the end, then, our parashah presents us with a stunning portrait of pivotal human choice we face each day: when we build, are we aiming for an ark (French: arche, a vessel made for saving others) or for a triomphe (French: a monument that celebrates ourselves)? With each act of construction, the choice is in our hands.
At the time of this writing in 2010, Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D., taught Rabbinic and Second Temple literature at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.